I will never forget January 1975. I was in Melbourne as the representative of a youth prayer group to attend a national conference on charismatic renewal. It was a time when the charismatic renewal was riding on the crest of a wave. Thousands of people had gathered from across the country as well as overseas to hear a line up of exciting speakers. They represented many denominations and the gatherings were marked by an incredible sense of joy and freedom.
During this conference, Fr Vince Hobbs, Brian Smith and John Carroll, three leaders from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Brisbane, began to share a vision of developing covenant community. They also took the opportunity to speak with Ralph Martin, one of the conference speakers, who was also a leader of a charismatic covenant community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Statement of Community Order Document (Section B.1.) explains that ‘A covenant community is a group of Christians who have been led by the Lord to express their love and commitment to him and to one another as part of a divine call or vocation. They do this through a public life-long commitment called a covenant.’
A time to begin
I still remember Brian Smith coming to me at the conference saying, ‘I really believe now is the time to build community.’
The idea of charismatic communities was not new. We had been in contact with them from as early as 1972 when Brian Smith first went to the United States. The hesitation about moving towards community was always a question of timing and maturity. Until now, no one was ready to step out and make that first move. That was about to change.
On their return to Brisbane, Brian Smith and John Carroll with their wives and families began to meet with two other couples to pursue this sense of call. In February of 1975 the four couples washed each others’ feet as a sign of their commitment and as an expression of their service to one another, not just in spiritual matters but in the whole of their life circumstances.
A new foundation was being laid which others would soon be invited to join. These couples shared their vision with the people of the prayer group at Bardon, which was the principal meeting place for Catholics involved in charismatic renewal with about 400-600 attending.
Responses varied. Some were excited at the new iniative because they had been looking for an opportunity to be more committed and for a way of including their children in this charismatic experience. Others were cautious and questioned this new direction.
After some weeks the community had its first intake. Thirteen families expressed a desire to be part of this new move of the Spirit. In the first year the community grew to nearly 200 members.
I observed the community from the beginning, preferring to remain part of the youth prayer group that had also begun to develop a strong sense of community. I had some suspicion about how this Brisbane Covenant Community (as it was then called) was going to develop. Would it begin well and simply become another prayer meeting or would it actually begin to achieve the goal of building a Christian way of life?
By the end of the first year it was obvious that the community was not only talking about a way of life, it was actually living it.
Early in 1976 our youth group of around 30 people decided that our call was to a community way of life and that it was better to join with the Brisbane Covenant Community than attempt to go in our own direction. After a few months formation our group made covenant, committing ourselves to follow the Lord in the context of this people called the Brisbane Covenant Community.
A time to build up
The first years of the community were life the beginning of a great adventure. It was the time of laying the foundationstones. The dynamism of the charismatic renewal had flowed into the community. Charismatic gifts played an important role in bringing depth and richness into our praiseand worship.
As well as gifts that we’d come to appreciate in prayer groups, we realised there were so many more gifts that we hadn’t thought about as charisms. As we shared life together as a community, other things became important.
Different ministries with children and young adults began to emerge as well as gifts of administration and various roles of service. Our horizons were broadening. We grew in our appreciation that charisms were given for the building up of the body.
We had a growing consciousness that this Christian community lifestyle was important both for the church and for the world. Cardinal Suenens had already begun to articulate the need for the church to offer pilot projects as a prefiguration of the kind of human community for which the world is searching so painfully… From a human point of view, it might seem paradoxical to make the future of the church dependent upon small Christian communities which, no matter how fervent, are but a drop in the ocean… But if we consider the spiritual energy released by every group which allows Christ to fill it with the life of the Holy Spirit, then the perspective changes, for we are putting ourselves in the strength and power of God (A New Pentecost, pp. 151-153).
If the Church is to fulfil its mission, communities which demonstrate this Christian way of life are an integral part of that mission.
A study conducted by Fusion, a Christian organisation committed to evangelisation in the Australian context, spoke of Australians as ‘people who think in terms of the concrete rather than the abstract, and very often thought forms that are used to express the Christian message are alien to them… What Australians need is a model. Once it’s seen in action they are quite capable of recognising its meaning’ (Fusion 1986).
This challenge to be a Christian community for the church and for the world was somehow at the heart of our mission.
One of the other hopes which was born out of this community life was a longing for reconciliation between Christians. While the founding members were predominently Catholic, there were also two Anglicans among them. This experience of sharing life together, coupled with the general enthusiasm of the 70s with regard to ecumenism, caused the community to hope that through the charismatic experience and a committed way of life it might find a way through the problems and divisions of a separated Christianity.
In late 1976 the name of the community was changed to the Emmanuel Covenant Community and with the change of name was a growing confidence that God really was with us and leading us in building this way of life. From the point of view of structure, the community lifestyle encompassed four main expressions, as outlined in the Emmanuel Statement of Community Order Documents (Section B.5.):
1. The General Community Gathering which is a meeting of the whole community to worship, to receive teaching and to maintain a common vision and fellowship;
2. Small group meetings are opportunities for share the Christian journey and receive encouragement and support;
3. Formation teaching courses are conducted to provide teaching on the spiritual life and everyday living as well as giving a clear orientation on the life of the community.
4. Social life in the community plays an important role in developing a genuine and balanced Christian lifestyle.
While these basic structures were important, the community had to offer more if it was to be a model to the church and the world. One of the most important developments in this area was the forumation of clusters.
In 1978, members of the community began tomove geographically closer together so that the community dimension would take moreconcrete expression. Community had to be demonstrated in practice, not just in theory. As families and single people moved closertogether, more and more opportunities presented themselves for the building of authentic Christian community. These included travelling to work together, sharing mowers, syupporting people when they were sick, providing practical care for widows, and other expressions of support.
Localised community expressions also enabled Emmanuel to be more effective in its local outreach and to contribute something to the wider community. Taking initiative at the local level to hold football games, Australia Day celebrations, picnics in the park, and Christmas carols were but a few ways that we endeavoured to share our lifestyle and contribute to our local community.
These were bridges of friendship which were built in local neighbourhoods to let others know we were ordinary human beings and not aliens from another planet ready to capture them and take them with us (which was one rumour circulating about us). Time and good will helped to break down some of the initial fears that were encountered when devloping clusters.
A time to reach out
While the initial concentration of energy in Emmanuel was in trying to become that which we claimed to be – a Christian community – we didn’t cease to reach out to others in local parishes, at national conferences, and in assisting other groups in both Australia and New Zealand in their desire to develop community.
In February, 1980, when I was conducting one of those outreaches to northern Queensland, I received a phone call asking me to serve as an Elder of the community. ‘An Elder is a leader in the community who together with a body of Elders exercises a governing role in the community’ (Statement of Community Order Document, Section D.3.).
My first response was a sense of awe as I reflected on God’s call in my life. The second awareness that I had was the sense of responsibility in leading and caring for this people that God had called into being. The prophet Jeremiah came to mind and his exclamation to the Lord when he protested that he was too young. ‘Say not, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak’ (Jeremiah 1:7). I was 25 years old at the time, married for three years with one small daughter. In the days ahead, that scripture gave me a lot of strength.
In November of 1980 the Emmanuel Community began its most ambitious missionary outreach. Responding to requests for assistance, three teams of five people travelled to six south east Asian countries to conduct leadership and training programmes for the Catholic charismatic renewal. I led the team which went to West Malaysia and Indonesia.
For each one of us who participated in these outreaches our lives would never be the same. Asia and her people had taken deep root in our hearts and in the coming years God would give some of us many opportunities to return, to live amongst the people and assist them in the devlopment of their own covenant communities. Today there are at least six covenant communities in Malaysia with new groups forming year after year.
Our outreach to Asia was not just a matter of going to Asia and giving out. We received more than we could ever hope or imagine. This was true for Emmanuel as a whole, especially when Asian brothers and sisters would visit us. In sharing life together, we were changed by their humility, love and commitment to Christ. Through our contact with them we became aware of our own poverty.
This experience of our own poverty was to be relived over and over again as future teams would go to Papua New Guinea and Fiji sharing life with the people and growing in love and understanding of their culture and way oflife. For Emmanuel, the key to outreach is living the life.
The people who participated in these outreaches were not experts but ordinary people who gave up their own holidays and paid their own way. What they had to do share was not so much what they had read in books but what they had experienced in trying to live the Christian life day by day in the context of a community. These were things that people could relate to, whether they lived in the highlands of Papua New Guinea on in the coastal villages of Fiji. Through outreaches like these the community grew to realise the importance of being faithful to the challenge of living the Christian life day by day.
A time to die
The first ten years of the community, although facing many challenges, were rather like when the apostles walked with Jesus and never ceased to be amazed at what he could do. Then just as the apostles were called to a baptism of suffering, so were we although I don’t think we really anticipated what we were about to experience.
Our baptism into Christ emcompasses his life, death and resurrection. All of these elements are imporant. What is it like for a community to be baptised into the death of Christ?
For Emmanuel, there was no single event but rather a series of them which brought about a real sense of dying in the community. At a very human level, people were tired of living such a committed life year after year. It was demanding and the cost was high. People struggled with their commitment and asked the question, ‘Is it worth it?’
At around the same time ecumenical tensions arose as well. We found ourselves struggling with the same ecclesiological problems that the wider church was experiencing. Despite our early hopes and many years of hard work, we had to admit our own limitations and faced the fact that it was not possible to build the ecumenical community we had once dreamed about.
Added to this was the breakdown of international relationships amongst covenant communities resulting in divisiveness and resentments. The once young and healthy community was suffering through its own sin and human limitations.
Perhaps the greatest test of trust was to come on 1 February, 1988. We had just celebrated Eucharist at our community office when we received word of an urgent phone call for Brian Smith. No one could have anticipated his words as he emerged from his office: ‘My daughter Teresa has passed away.’ The next twenty-four hours would reveal the truth of Teresa’s brutal rape and murder.
The question on everyone’s lips was how could God allow this to happen. Like many other people in the community, I had known Teresa since she was a little girl. She was a real character, full of fun, life and faith. That evening as Brian and Lorraine Smith were interviewed on national television, they spoke of their forgiveness for Teresa’s murderer. As the Emmanuel community attempted to comfort Brian and Lorraine, so too did they comfort the community by continuing to speak of forgiveness and the need to surrender to God’s will.
While Teresa’s life had a wonderful impact on the lives of many, I would dare to say that her death had a greater impact. There is no doubt that she was a servant of God in both her life and in her death. As we trusted in God to raise Teresa, his servant, from death into fulness of life within him, it somehow gave us all a little more courage to believe that God would raise Emmanuel from its despair and bring it to new life.
A time for healing
The resurrection for which we hoped was not immediate but it did happen. It did not come as a result of good planning or skilled leadership but purely through the action of the Holy Spirit. Members of the community were renewed in their commitment. There was a new enthusiasm to move on. It was a different enthusiasm from that of the beginning. It was one marked by realism and a desire to give in to the will of God.
This was especially evident among the young people in the community. While the community is now clearly Catholic and not ecumenical in its entity, the heart to work towards Christian unity still remains an important charism.
A fruit of the difficulties experienced between communities internationally has been the development of two international associations for communities.
The first is the International Brotherhood of Communities (IBOC) which provides a meeting place for all the different expressions of covenant communities around the world. It is ecumenical in its expression and seeks to encourage leaders of communities as they respond to God’s call.
The second group is the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Communities and Felowships. Inaugurated in Rome in November 1990, the Catholic Fraternity had very humble beginnings. While fewer than 40 delegates from 13 communities gathered for the inaugural meeting, we experienced a conviction that God intended to do great things from this small beginning. More than 200 covenant communities from around the world have sought information on becoming part of the Fraternity. The Emmanuel Community in Brisbane was not only a founding member of the fraternity but did much of the preliminary work which culminated in a formal recognition by Pope John Paul II. This is the first time a cononical approval has been given by the Vatican to any charismatic group.
As I look back over my years of involvement in the Emmanuel Covenant Community, some things are clear to me. The contribution of covenant communities to the life of the church and the world must come out of brokenness and humility rather than pride or arrogance. The path to humility is the way of the cross and whether we like it or not, Jesus calls us to embrace it. ‘Whoever does not take up his cross and follow in my steps is not fit to be my disciple’ (Matthew 10:38).
We are not people who have it all together, but people who are on a journey, people who experience the same trails and temptations as anyone else. Unlike our early years when we thought we were going to save the whole world, we have come to find that our only boast is the cross of Christ. The cross is our redemption. As we surrender to the cross, so too do we dare to hope in the resurrection.
Fusion (1986) ‘Understanding and Reaching Australians’, a Position Paper.
Suenens, Cardinal A New Pentecost.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 25-34
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